Thursday, February 2, 2023

'We're finally responding': First Black mayor of EL reflects on his term thus far

February 15, 2022
<p>East Lansing Mayor Ron Bacon in his office at East Lansing City Hall on Feb. 9, 2022.</p>

East Lansing Mayor Ron Bacon in his office at East Lansing City Hall on Feb. 9, 2022.

Ron Bacon has a knack for public service, driving him to serve the East Lansing community, previously as Human Rights Commission chair and City Council liaison, and now as the City's first Black mayor.

But don't get it twisted — he's just like us.

Apart from mayorship, Bacon has a day-job working in biotechnology at GeneDx, as the therapeutic area manager for southwest and southeast Michigan.

He packs his mayoral tasks at the end of the week, Bacon said, while his day job is done during the week. East Lansing City Council meets three Tuesdays a month, so Bacon will use his Monday evening to prepare because he leads the agenda.

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"I pack a lot into Friday ... after 12 p.m, I'll switch hats and begin to look at city-related stuff on Fridays and do meetings or lunch. ... Pack it all into the end of the week," he said.

Bacon is a leader of a large and widespread team serving the city. He emphasizes his staff's role in helping him balance his busy schedule.

"We have such a great staff. ... It's such a big team. Once we've set the agenda as council, minus our individual boards and commissions, there's not a lot to do in a good sense, because our team is so good," he said. "It's a team concept, which I'm also a coach, so the team stuff is my thing. I don't take much credit for that."

In addition, Bacon's assumed his position more inquisitively — like a football coach, guiding his team to success through trial and error, analyzing different plays and seeing what works and what doesn't.

"If something out there or (has) already been done, or if we have institutional memory around something that's been done right or wrong, I don't want to repeat it like, 'Oh, that's been tried, here's why it failed,'" Bacon said. "Instead, I want to go, 'Let's do it this way, this time with these types of things.'"

One thing about Bacon is that he's not a politician — that's what sets him apart.

"I might have to call and be like, 'What's with my trash?'" Bacon said. "I'm in the same boat with everyone."

Bacon also serves on East Lansing Educational Foundation, handling endowment for public schools, and the Martin Luther King, or MLK, Commission of Mid-Michigan, which puts on the annual luncheon.

The MLK Commission was part of the Dr. Robert Greene project to rename Pinecrest Elementary to Greene Elementary in the East Lansing Public School District.

"You'll see a lot of us doing stuff with speakers this year, including the four members of the Little Rock Nine on their 65th anniversary," Bacon said.

He also served as liaison on the Study Committee on an Independent Police Oversight Commission — with police oversight being one of Bacon's most important issues and passions, he said he wants to rebuild the city's policing reputation.

Now, Bacon is the liaison to the seated commission.

"Our brand was damaged," Bacon said. "Sometimes with police and different services, a small sampling can ruin the whole reputation. We were getting to that point ... and it's not the fault of everyone."

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Bacon said he views police oversight as a partnership, and that he wants to assure the city's policework represents its culture.

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Bacon built the Police Oversight Commission from the ground up, but his goal for the commission is absolute independence.

"It's called independent on the front of it for a reason," Bacon said. "It makes really no sense if I'm guiding them, but I'll try to keep them moving in one direction or refocus them, but their chair and co-chair set the agenda and move them forward. ... I want them to set their own agenda."

However, this hasn't been without challenge. COVID-19 has caused delays, including the cancellation of meetings. It slowed the commission's build-out.

Presently, the commission is focusing on how they should operate.

"It's neat to build something from the ground up," Bacon said. "There was this outpouring of applicants. It was one of the first times I interviewed for a commission. I could have picked any of these people, it was such a good cross-section of our community."

His administration has also leaned heavily into placemaking and expanding the city's downtown, including diversifying how spaces are used, along with bringing back festivals and events as normalcy returns.

"We've learned from during the pandemic, born out of the need to get outside," Bacon said. "I think people have become more accustomed to being outside. How can we take advantage of that part of it?"

Another issue Bacon wants to tackle is housing affordability or attainable housing. He wants to find out how students can afford to live off-campus while attending MSU.

"We've had such an outgrowth of student housing, we have the sophomore rule ... so we're trying to figure out how they're going to impact housing," Bacon said, "East Lansing is a little bit land-poor, we don't have space and a lot of our housings' purpose is student housing."

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Further, the city has a great line of communication with Michigan State University, he said.

"The next step is seeing what actionable things we can do outside of the pandemic — we're still in that phase because we haven't quite beat this," Bacon said. "Most things that happen here involve students. It's one city. I don't think it's two places."

Regarding his historic appointment, Bacon said it speaks to a lot of social progress, yet it was unintentional.

"I think all the work we've done, we were first really early on Martin Luther King holiday, we were really early on LGBTQ rights — we're really early on a lot of things, and then completely unintentional on other things," Bacon said. "It's the old laissez-faire kind of approach to civil rights. You have to be intentional because most of the harm done by discrimination was very intentional. ... That's our goal, that's why we established our DEI Department and other things, to be really intentional about what we're going to do moving forward and not just let things happen."

Bacon calls this, response versus react.

"I think we're finally responding," he said.

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Bacon also recalls the importance of representation. Someone from each group in a community has to be at the table, he said.

"Since we re-seated our University-Student Commission, the issues are different," Bacon said. "I haven't thought about scooters. I hate scooters. They're like, 'Well, I used the scooter to get here.' ... That's why representation is so important."

That is Bacon's aspiration for the future, after serving as mayor. He wants to stay representative, like continuing commission volunteering.

"I do want to continue to serve in some form, kind of forever," he said. "All politics are local. When you sit in these seats, you learn how much impact local small ordinances and resolutions can have on the broader community. I don't take that lightly. ... It's important to participate. I've told people a million times, and I told the students and ASMSU, boards and commissions are really powerful, and they're not elected."

Bacon imagines East Lansing as much more than a college town, expanding nightlife and providing students with fresh experiences and new offerings.

"That will come with growth, which will create some growing pains," Bacon said. "So, we're going to have some give and take, we're going to grow. That's just how it goes, and we'll figure out what those growing pains are ... and what do the new challenges create for us? So, that's going to be the big question," he said.

East Lansing is at an inflection point, Bacon said. Now, East Lansing has to decide what kind of city it will be moving forward.

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